Avoid breaking commitments to maintain trust

Carefully consider the unintended consequences of breaking a commitment

Article originally published in the Philadelphia Business Journal on October 21, 2019

Have you ever failed to fulfill a commitment you made to someone and experienced unintended consequences? How did that make you feel? The adage “your word is your bond” has significant meaning to those who place high importance on trust and in meeting their commitments. It defines their character.

A case in point are the unintended consequences of President Donald Trump’s abrupt Oct. 7 announcement to immediately pull American troops out of northern Syria, exposing the Kurds in the region to attacks by the Turkish military. The Kurds are a distinct ethnic group and they live within regions of Turkey, Syria, Iraq and Iran. The U.S. withdrawal provides an opportunity for the Turkish military to seize the portion of Kurdish territory claimed by Turkey and will permit the resurgence of ISIS.

The Kurds have been a key ally in the U.S. fight against ISIS. They view the U.S. withdrawal as an abandonment of a commitment to protect them against Turkey. Turkey is also an ally of the U.S. and is a member of NATO.

Soon after Trump’s announcement and the U.S. military withdrawal, many ISIS fighters escaped detention. There are now militias roaming the region, which is falling into chaos.

Shortly after Trump’s order to withdraw American troops, the military forces of Turkey attacked the Kurds, notwithstanding Trump’s threat to “totally destroy and obliterate the economy of Turkey if he considered their actions to be off limits.”

On Oct. 14, Trump announced economic sanctions on Turkey in an attempt to halt the Turkish military onslaught against the Kurds. On Oct.17, Vice President Mike Pence announced a five-day ceasefire to give the Kurds time to evacuate the region. The prime minister of Turkey described it as only a pause in operations. In exchange, Trump announced the lifting of economic sanctions. However, a day after the ceasefire announcement, the Turks continued to shell Kurdish civilians. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) said, “The cease-fire does not change the fact that America has abandoned an ally, adding insult to dishonor.”

As a result of the U.S. troop withdrawal, the Kurds have cut a deal with Syrian President Bashal-al-Assad to protect them against Turkey, significantly strengthening the Syrian president in the country’s civil war and boosting Russia’s influence in the region. Apparently, Trump did not think through these unintended consequences nor a possible resurgence of ISIS, which are not in the best interests of the U.S.

In a press conference on Oct. 9, Trump was asked if in future times of need, whether it’s going to be more difficult to develop alliances. Trump responded, “No, it won’t be. Alliances are very easy…” My personal experience is that this is not the case. Trust is built over time, but can be destroyed very quickly. People who violate their commitments are not trusted.

One wonders how the South Koreans and Israelis are feeling now. They must be wondering, “Can we trust the U.S. to keep its commitments to us?”

A Washington Post article dated Oct. 13 is headlined, “Trump orders withdrawal of U.S. forces from northern Syria, days after Pentagon downplays that possibility.” Every effective leader listens to the experts on their staff, and it is reported that they and a number of Senate Republicans warned Trump about U.S. troop withdrawal, but he ordered the withdrawal anyway. It’s an embarrassment to the U.S. for Trump to unexpectedly announce a U.S. withdrawal, contradicting the earlier comments by the Pentagon.

An Oct. 13 article in The New York Times headlined, “Pullback leaves Green Berets feeling ashamed, and Kurdish allies describing betrayal.” The article quotes a U.S. military officer stating, “[The Kurds] trusted us and we broke that trust. It’s a stain on the American conscience.” In the same article, an official allied with the Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces, is quoted as stating, “The worst thing …is betrayal [of your comrades].”

Trump has talked about his desire to pull troops out of Syria in the past. His abrupt action without a plan to protect American interests in the region led to strong condemnation by former members of his and previous administrations, and by both Republican and Democratic members of Congress.

Former Secretary of Defense James Mattis, during an interview on Meet the Press, stated, “[We] will have to see if [the Kurds] are able to maintain the fight against ISIS.” Mattis continued, “I think Secretary of State [Mike] Pompeo, the intelligence services and the foreign countries that are working with us have it about right, that ISIS is not defeated.”

Mattis was asked, “How do you turn [U.S. abandonment of the Kurds] around?” He said, “You turn issues like this around based on trust, and re-instilling trust is going to be very difficult for the Americans at this point.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a fervent Trump supporter stated,“I think he’s putting the nation at risk, and I think he’s putting his presidency at risk … I hope he will adjust his policies.” During a Fox and Friends interview, Graham said, “The biggest lie being told by the administration is that ISIS is defeated.”

On Oct.16, The House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning the U.S. Syrian troop withdrawal by a vote of 354 to 60, with two thirds of the House Republicans voting for the resolution, including the Republican House leadership.

So, what are the lessons to be learned from Trump’s withdrawal of troops from northern Syria?

  • Always consider the unintended consequences of your decisions.
  • Listen to your advisers.
  • If you lose the confidence and trust of allies due to a broken commitment, they may go elsewhere for what they need, lessening your influence in the future.
  • If you lose support on a major issue, you lose political capital.
  • Don’t let others think you don’t know what you are doing. It makes you and your organization look bad.

A leader’s effectiveness and their organization’s or country’s standing depends on the degree to which others trust them. Don’t violate that trust. Don’t walk away from your commitments.


Stan Silverman is founder and CEO of Silverman Leadership. He is a speaker, advisor and nationally syndicated columnist on leadership, entrepreneurship and corporate governance. Silverman earned a Bachelor of Science degree in chemical engineering and an MBA degree from Drexel University. He is also an alumnus of the Advanced Management Program at the Harvard Business School. He can be reached at Stan@SilvermanLeadership.com.